Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Advantage of Rolling Dice

Advantage (and disadvantage) debuted in the May 24th D&D playtest as a game mechanic simulating a creature having an edge (or a hindrance) to an attack, task, or other effort. Prior to the playtest release, the design team experimented with several methods of achieving advantage/disadvantage. Each had their strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimately we decided we wanted to test an aggressive version with the initial rules: When you have advantage on an attack or other suitable d20 roll, roll twice and use the higher result. (Or, roll twice and take the lower result if you have disadvantage.)
One of the potential drawbacks we worried about was the mechanic’s novelty. Was it too wild a twist on player expectations? And, possibly too significant an actual mathematical bonus (or penalty)?
On the other hand, possible strengths of the mechanic include the very same two points: it’s a novel, exciting way to model having some kind of an edge (or hindrance), and the effect is big and meaty enough to really matter when it does apply.
An even more important strength of the roll-twice method is to reduce on-the-fly math at the table. A numerical mechanic requires a player to add at least 3 numbers together with each roll: the roll result + an already-calculated attack bonus (or ability modifier) + the advantage bonus (a +2 or +3, say). Everyone can do this sort of math of course, but each additional number that’s added or subtracted makes the calculation slower, and over the course of play, slows the game. Math is hard.
Finally, an obvious strength of the current advantage system is simply that it’s fun to roll dice.
Now the playtest is out. Those of you running Caves of Chaos and the pregenerated characters are using the mechanic. A surprisingly high number of you (our survey pros tell us) filled out and returned the survey included with the release (thank you). We were excited to see a greater than 70% approval rating for the current mechanic.
Of course it’s early days, and this is a playtest after all. We already know we need to tweak advantage/disadvantage a bit. At the very least, we need to very carefully think about appropriate places to apply it, and more importantly, places where its application is just a bad idea. In fact, that later point is important. While dice rolling is fun, too much dice rolling isn’t.
For instance, consider a spell that could inflict blanket disadvantage to a creature for a minute. What if that creature has a claw/claw/bite attack routine? Is suddenly becomes too many dice to ask the DM to roll. Imagine if that same spell applied to a group of monsters for a minute. Even worse. Likewise, awarding blanket advantage to monsters encountered in large numbers can also quickly become a pain.

Going forward, a design and development rule of thumb might be something like (what Rodney Thompson said to me over the cube wall between our desks): a player or creature should (generally speaking) expend an action to gain advantage or bestow disadvantage. I couldn’t agree more. In your playtests, try that as a guiding principle, and see how it works out.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ranger Design Goals

High level goals for ranger design for the next edition of D&D? Here they are! (or, here they were at any rate).

1. The Ranger is a Wilderness Hunter and Tracker
Rangers are at home in the uncharted wilds, whether those wilds be darkling forests, mountain badlands, or sunless deeps.
   In their guise as trackers, rangers are both stealthy and alert. They’re able to track a falcon on a cloudy day and find useful herbs. They are wary of potential trails, or ambushes.
   In their guise as hunters, rangers can choose to focus on an individual quarry, whereupon their hunter’s instincts kick in, allowing them to strike with enhanced lethal force.

2. The Ranger is a Warrior
Rangers wear light armor appropriate for stalking prey, and are adept with martial weapons. Having learned many hard lessons in the wild, rangers are tougher than other people, and better able to withstand hurts. Many rangers focus on a particular combat style, traditionally two weapon fighting or archery, and do so via an appropriate theme.  

3. The Ranger is a Protector
Rangers revere nature, and are often called to protect individual trees or creatures, groves or packs, or fey creatures. However, rangers can protect creatures who are out of place in the wilderness, serving not only as a guide, but also as a personal defender against threats both natural and unnatural.

4. Rangers are Friends With Wild Creatures
Natural beasts are generally well disposed toward rangers and vice versa, as reflected in a ranger’s natural ability to befriend animals. Rangers have the option to form a deeper bond with a given animal by gaining its trust and loyalty, allowing it to aid the ranger as a scout, informant, or provide some other useful service. With each new animal a ranger bonds with, the ranger’s understanding and appreciation of the natural world grows.

5. Additional Notes

A ranger who wants to be really good at two-weapon fighting or archery does so by choosing the themes suggested for the ranger (tempest or archer). And a ranger who wants a companion animal that’s a competent combat ally chooses the beastmaster theme.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Spy Who Fireballed Me

The release of the playtest and blogs such as Wizard with a License to Kill [link] and Backgrounds and Themes [link] generated forum discussions, feedback, and questions about backgrounds and themes. Many of the questions asked about our current approach to how skills deliver backgrounds and themes deliver feats.
First, I’m gratified that some people noticed the  pregenerated character sheet note beneath the Background and Theme columns, and decided to try it out. Apparently they played a game with a more “old school feel” with great success. Already our goal of providing modular play is proving amenable.
However, most of you did use the backgrounds and themes provided. So to help answer some of the questions about them, I’d like you to introduce you to the human wizard named Seren. Seren has the Spy background (not that she’s told anyone), and the Magic User theme.
A background is something Seren, and all other characters, comes to the table with—her background is who she was, and still is. All the skills and the single trait provided by a background are delivered immediately upon selection, regardless of level. Which means the “handler” trait (could potentially be) provided by the Spy background is immediately useful to Seren. Every so often, a mysterious contact (the “handler”) answers Seren’s questions, when she can find him. Other times he approaches Seren with tantalizing information that leads her on new adventures. (For instance, her handler recently left a cryptic note about something called “The Sundering.”) In addition to her handler, Seren’s Spy background might provide her skills such as Bluff, Disguise, and Decipher Script, all of which make her slightly better at doing things she could’ve attempted without training (but when you’re a Spy, every little bit helps).
As earlier noted, Seren also has the Magic User theme. A theme reflects the manner in which she (and other characters) interact with the world. So as she gains experience and knowledge, her theme grows with her, adding to her expertise over time. As the rules iteration currently stand, a theme is how a character gains feats. Like earlier editions, feats offered by a theme come at specified levels. Currently, we’ve set the default for feat acquisition at character levels 1, 3, 5, and so on. Which means that Seren, when portrayed as a 5th level D&D character, has 3 feats. Her 1st level feat gives her two extra minor spells, her third level feat gives her a familiar (Seren likes ravens), and her 5th level feat gives her a flourish with a favorite spell. In Seren’s case, it’s fireball, baby!
Race and class do not provide skills or feats in the current rules iteration. Skills (and 1 trait) are provided in a story package called background, and feats (and a level progression) are provided in a story package called theme. If you want to run a game using skills and feats but let players pick and choose their own mix, you’d use the same framework. But the guidelines we’d provide for such a ‘total customization option’ would tell you to encourage your players to create with their own background that matched the skills they chose, and their own theme to explain the feats.

And so Seren infiltrates a mysterious temple using a disguise to impersonate a priest, her raven to provide additional intel, her training in deception to fool those who question her presence, and finally her flourish with fireball when, on the brink of discovery, she launches an explosive distraction to make good on her escape.